Last week, the New York Times published a story in which they said that Obama fantasizes about “going Bulworth.” By this, the writer means to just say what he feels rather than being political. I saw Bulworth in the theater back in 1998. I thought it was okay but it didn’t particularly stick with me. But 1998 was probably the worst year of my life, so I figured it would be worth revisiting the film. And tonight I watched it again.
As a film, it works beautifully. The script is great and Warren Beatty really is an excellent director. The music is perfect and the film is funny as hell. If Frank Capra were making movies today, Bulworth is the kind of film he would make. It is full of wry and sentimental observations. In the end, everyone is good and all would be fine if it weren’t for the larger social forces that tear us apart.
And that is the problem with the film from a political standpoint. It plays very much like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In fact, at one point, Bulworth even says that the Democrats and the Republicans are the same. But the fact is that that is just not true. I would have no problem with him saying that the Democrats and Republicans are both terrible. That is in fact true. But the false equivalence is perhaps the worst sin that can be made in the form of political commentary.
The worst part of the “both side do it” and “there is no difference” arguments is that they create apathy. In fact, they create apathy in those who are most ignored by the political system: the poor and weak. In the film, Bulworth wins in a landslide. But in reality, he would not win because loads of conservatives voted for him; he would win because loads of poor people who vote in low numbers would have voted in high numbers. So there’s some cognitive dissonance in Bulworth.
The other problem with false equivalence is that it just isn’t true. I like this short Michelle Goldberg video because of the line, “In 2000, lefty leaders, who really should have known better, claimed that Al Gore was no better than George W. Bush—that they were Tweedledee and Tweedledum”:
That is something that I think is very important to remember: Clinton, Gore, Obama? They are all extremely disappointing. But they are infinitely better than what the Republicans have on offer. What’s more, by working with the Democratic Party, we can make the politicians better. Ignoring politics or waiting for a Bulworth-like savior is just living in denial.
But such fine political distinctions are impossible to get across in a movie. In fact, they are often difficult to get across in a movement. You may remember when the Tea Party first started, they talked in ways that were similar to Bulworth. They weren’t Republican or Democrat. And they sounded downright populist. This is always the way it is. Until people start talking policy, it’s all: corporate and government corruption. But as the Tea Party began to give details we learned that it was really the government that was corrupt by its very nature. Corporations weren’t so much corrupt as stifled by a corrupt government. In other words, the “Tea” and “Republican” were interchangeable.
Compare this to the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s interesting that even though the group continues to do a lot of very important work, we hardly hear a peep from them in the mainstream press. That movement turned out to be on the political left, of course. But it was not at all the case that the group was synonymous with the Democratic Party.
It seems that the only fiery rhetoric that the TV is interested in is the kind that degenerates into conservative policy. And that, above all, is why Bulworth has to die at the end of the film. As long as he’s talking in the abstract, everyone can enjoy it. But going forward and trying to run the country? That would make half the people angry. And I don’t say that because I think half of America is conservative; it’s not. But half of America is glued directly or indirectly to conservative media. And in a short time, they would only hear Bulworth through the lens of the insurance industry.
Of course, we are not going to hear any Bulworth in President Obama. But I do think that by working to improve the Democratic Party, we can get politicians with a little more Bulworth in them. And that would be enough. At least for a while.
I remember when I was maybe 17 years old. I came home and my father was watching some PBS talk show. And on the talk show was Noam Chomsky. Now, my father is extremely conservative. So I was shocked to see that my father completely agreed with Chomsky about whatever he was talking about. Since that time, I’ve become very familiar with this. For example, I have my father convinced that what this country really needs is a single-payer healthcare system. I can convince my father of just about anything that isn’t currently being pushed on Fox News. But I know that if the country started discussing replacing Obamacare with a single-payer system, everything would change. Suddenly, Fox News would be doing a full-court press against single-payer. And all the arguments that my father can right now give you for why we need single-payer would vanish and he would explain to me that “we have the best healthcare system in the world!” And that “single-payer is socialized medicine!” Note: the very things he would say then are things that he scoffs at now, quite unprompted from me. That is the power of “trusted” media.